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Fearing fear itself

Historians and economists can vigorously debate the degree to which Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies helped alleviate the Great Depression. Similarly, armchair generals can argue about whether the Allied victory in World War II was above all an American triumph.

But on one point there is little quarrel: The steadfast leadership and reassuring strength of President Roosevelt was critical in building confidence in the American people that they could and would overcome economic disaster at home and the combined might of the Nazis and Japanese militarists abroad.

Compare that to the fear-mongering of President Bush.

The latest silliness was the President’s assertion last month that preventing Iran from making a nuclear weapon was an effort to avoid World War III.

That wasn’t the first time Mr. Bush invoked fear of a Third World War. In 2005, as he groped for new rationales for his war of choice, he said Iraq was ground zero in World War III. Last year, he referred to the passengers’ revolt on United Flight 93 as the “first counterattack to World War III.” Even his ill-considered “axis of evil” reference to the disparate states of Iraq, Iran and North Korea evoked world war terminology.

One hopes that Mr. Bush doesn’t really believe a stateless gang like al-Qaida or Iran’s isolated third-tier regime poses the same kind of mortal peril as the massive military-industrial complexes of Hitler’s Germany and Imperial Japan.

But the President isn’t offering a serious historical analogy. He is, amid rock-bottom approval ratings and widespread domestic condemnation of his policies, groping to rally public support by keeping fear alive.

But by misstating his case, he undermines rather than builds American confidence and determination – and erodes trust in his leadership.

The vehicle for the President’s message of fear is perpetual war. And make no mistake, the “war on terror” – which has now lasted longer than either world war – has no end that the President can define. Not only can there never be an elimination of every hatecrazed terrorist or religious fanatic, but each regional or local crisis – Iraq’s sectarian civil war, Iran’s nuclear program, any Palestinian uprising – becomes part of the President’s portrayal of a global war directed against America.

Terrorists and Iran pose real dangers, even if they don’t rise to world war levels. America’s chances of success would be much greater if Mr. Bush devoted less energy to instilling fear, and more to guiding the nation toward an accurate understanding of the threats and of what needs to be done.

– The Courier-Journal, Louisville

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